Royal porcelain sets and merchants’ tea pots: Russian Porcelain exhibition guide

August 12

The Russian Porcelain: Origins and Traditions exhibition that opened in July is highly recommended both to fans of decorative art from the 18th-20th centuries and to anyone who has an eye for beauty. They will all enjoy it. The exhibition includes items from Russian and European porcelain factories and pieces by artists from the museum collection, with dishware and figurines. This story by and Mosgortur tourism agency will look at the most interesting items.

Vinogradov’s “white gold”

When a boy, Dmitry Vinogradov enrolled in the Slavic Greek Latin Academy in Moscow. There he made friends with Mikhail Lomonosov who was nine years older. Their destinies brought the two future scientists together for a long time: upon graduation from the academy the friends continued their education, first in St Petersburg and then in Germany.

With their educations in Europe both of them showed their values as outstanding chemical technologists. Vinogradov developed a compound formula for porcelain in 1747 that allowed Russia to join a small group of countries possessing the secret of this “white gold” composition. Lomonosov, in turn, became an innovator in colour glass, smalt glass and mosaic glass. After his friend’s death, Dmitry Vinogradov founded the Neva Porcelain factory – the first in Russia.

The Tsaritsyno exhibition displays one of the factory’s first products — an Easter egg – made in 1744–1758 to Vinogradov’s design. The developer of Russian porcelain experimented a great deal with the firing temperatures and pigments, and he looked for new colour patterns. The pink, lilac and green tints applied to the egg became distinctive features of Russian porcelain of the 18th century.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

The tea caddy and the decorative egg, designed by Lomonosov and referred to as late 18th century, are close in time to Vinogradov’s work.

A modern copy of Vinogradov’s candy bowl with a lid is displayed in the same section as the original; the original dates to 1748 and is kept at the Kuskovo Estate Museum. Colour figurines by Vinogradov and Lomonosov, and then copied by Gleb Sadikov in 1969, are exhibited side by side. Images of the Russian porcelain inventor can only be imagined; regrettably, not a single picture of him survives to this day.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

The show includes many items from porcelain service sets that were used by Russian emperors at different times and which set porcelain fashion.

One example is the Everyday service made to order for Catherine the Great at the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory. As the name implies, it was intended for everyday use at the empress’s table and first used at the Winter Palace and later at the Peterhof Palace. Unlike ceremonial sets, these were made of lower quality porcelain and had simpler decorative patterns: the colour palettes had no more than three colours with almost no gilding.

The service set received its second name — With Roses — because of the large bunches of flowers painted on it. This was a tribute to the flower designs from Europe’s oldest Meissen manufactory that was the leader in European porcelain production for a long time. Variations of such roses are often found on Dutch porcelain ware later, even in the Soviet era.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

Several exhibit items are associated with Nicholas I. Upon enthronement he presented his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, with a mansion at Peterhof later known as Her Majesty’s Own Summer House Alexandria. Soon the estate had a Cottage, a pseudo-Gothic palace designed by Scotch architect Adam Menelaws. Imperial Porcelain Manufactory craftsmen created a Cottage set for this residence in the Gothic style in 1827–1829. All 530 items in the set carried the Alexandria coat of arms: a blue shield with a sword drawn through a wreath of white roses.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

The coat of arms for the summer house of Alexandra Feodorovna was designed by romantic poet Vasily Zhukovsky who gave the German-born princess Russian lessons. The coat of arms appeared in commemoration of her birthday celebrations held in Potsdam in July 1829. A chivalric tournament and a ball were held in her honour on that day and the square in front of the palace was decorated with thousands of white roses so much liked by the empress.

A porcelain set for the royal family had to be accompanied by a cut-glass set and a set of silver cutlery designed in a single style. An elaborate cut-glass set named Own was made at the Imperial Glass Factory to the order of Nicholas I for the Cottage set.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

The dessert plate featuring orders of the Russian Empire displayed in the same showcase has English roots although made at the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in 1847.

In 1844 Nicholas I paid an official visit to England and a year later Queen Victoria ordered a dessert set with Russian orders at John Rose & Co. in memory of that visit. The gift was welcome and later the pieces of the set were copied at the Imperial Manufactory. Meanwhile, Russia made its own sets dedicated to state awards from the late 18th century. The same showcase also has a reserve plate from the Orders set with a coat of arms surrounded by a chain of the Order of St Andrew.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

The artists who designed royal dishware sets in the 19th century often turned to historical subjects. The Arabesque set was inspired by the frescos discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum then followed by the rest of Europe. The Gothic set was based on medieval ornamentation and its colours remind us of the stained-glass windows of Gothic cathedrals. The Kremlin coronation set used by several Russian royal generations was inspired by the golden dish with jewels that belonged to Alexis of Russia and now kept in the Armoury Chamber. Nothing remains of the porcelain’s whiteness that was so much respected in the 18th century — it was completely covered by gilding.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

Most of the royal sets were made to order, although the Corbie set, which could be purchased, turned out to be a favourite. It carries pictures of grape leaves, bunches of grapes and golden sprouts as well as flower compositions in medallions, unique in each item. It was named after Jerome Corbie, owner of a shop on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg where it was bought in 1823 on the eve of Alexandra Feodorovna’s birthday, then a Grand Princess. After the celebrations the set was forwarded to Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village) for use at the “Highest” tables. Later it was supplemented on many occasions and even added a tea set of the same design consisting of cups, saucers and cake plates.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

The Russian tea party

An entire room is devoted to Russian tea china: items from tea services manufactured in the 19th century by a number of Russian factories known by the names of their owners – Gardner, Safronov, Popov, Orlov, the Kornilov brothers – chime with an installation of some 15 fill-up pots for hot water from Likino-Dulevo, a symbol of the Russian tea party in the 20th century. 

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

Tea was first brought to Russia during the reign of Tsar Alexis I in the second half 17th century, but it gained real popularity only in the epoch of Catherine the Great, when the English tea etiquette, one almost indistinguishable from the coffee etiquette, asserted itself among the Russian aristocracy.  However, being fully imported and extremely expensive, tea was almost unknown to other walks of life.

But a revolution was in the making and it was finally performed by Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod merchants, who supplied tea to the elite. Little by little, they warmed up to the exotic beverage and evolved a distinct merchant tea-drinking tradition of long and abundant tea parties accompanied with sedate conversations.  Over time, it spread to the rest of the country.

The classical English tea service included a teapot, a creamer, a sugar-bowl, and small cups with saucers.  But the long merchant tea-drinking called for new forms of crockery, such as large tavern fill-up pots, biscuit dishes, jam bowls, fruit bowls, dishes for pies, pie plates, and samovars.  Cups became larger and saucers deeper, the latter starting to be used as drinking bowls.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

Items of the sumptuous merchant style were mostly manufactured by factories located in the environs of Moscow. But they sprung surprises as well. For example, the Popov Factory was long unable to isolate noble shades of cobalt.  Finally they did, but the resultant hue was bright blue and it soon rose to popularity. Visitors to the exhibition can compare the aristocratic cobalt and the Popov blue displayed in one of the showcases.  

Tea-drinking became a national pastime in the 19th century, when a method to ferment fireweed was invented for the benefit of the poor. The turn of the century summerhouse culture ended up reconciling the merchant and aristocratic traditions.

The Soviet Union launched its own tea-growing in Georgia and the Krasnodar Territory, but the old tradition did not disappear. Among the fashionable postwar items there were large teapots similar to the popular variety of one hundred years earlier. Far from all Soviet families had a dinner service for guests, but a tea service was a fixture in practically every household.

Meissen flowers, crayfish and other porcelain wonders

For a long time, the Meissen Factory was the benchmark for Russian porcelain producers and this is why the exhibition features numerous Meissen masterpieces from the Tsaritsyno collection. A case in point is a bowl from the famous Red Dragon service (1730-1740), one of the first services for formal occasions that were presented to the royal houses of Europe on behalf of the Prince Elector of Saxony. The Rococo Gardeners service is related to Russia in that one of its creators, sculptor Michel Victor Acier (1736–1799), was maternal great-grandfather of composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

A separate display is dedicated to statuettes. Arranged as a collector’s desk, it features snuff-boxes, small vases, inkpots and statuettes, including figurines based on the highly popular 19th-century collection of prints titled The Magic Lantern, or the Sight of St Petersburg Common Vendors, Craftsmen and Other Tradesmen, which was published in 1817.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

A small display focuses on porcelain birds and inhabitants of the sea. This is a reference of sorts to the menageries with their exotic animals and Poseidon Grottos built in gardens and parks in the 17th-19th centuries. A piece not to be overlooked is a butter dish with a lid decorated with an astonishingly true-to-life boiled crayfish, manufactured by the Kuznetsov Factory in the early 20th century.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

The three centuries of Russian porcelain are reflected in the Flowers and Music service by the outstanding contemporary designer Inna Olevskaya (born in 1940), who won renown as both a sculptor and an artist. The service is a fantasia on the emotional kinship of poetry and music based on a recurring rose motif. The author achieved an interesting effect, where the deeper colour of small items is perceived as weightless on larger objects. Not incidentally, this tribute to the Rose Age, the gallant 18th century, is the logical conclusion of the Tsaritsyno exhibition.

Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve


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